My reaction to your busy signal is much like that of Mindy Kaling, who sees stress as non-conversation:
No one ever wants to hear how stressed out anyone else is, because most of the time everyone is stressed out. Going on and on in detail about how stressed out I am isn’t conversation. It’ll never lead anywhere. No one is going to say, “Wow, Mindy, you really have it especially bad. I have heard some stories of stress, but this just takes the cake.”
Likewise, going on about how busy you are isn’t conversation and doesn’t lead anywhere — except making your conversation partner bored, or worse, peeved. People who act super busy send the same message, making time spent with them never feel quite whole. Interestingly, I find that most people who are legitimately occupied — with their work, or family, or art, or what-have-you — rarely play the “too busy” card, or go out of their way to make time for meaningful connection exactly because they’ve been busy.
The Meaning Behind “Busy”
When you go on to other people, or to yourself, about being so busy, you’re often engaging in doublespeak. Let’s dig a little deeper to translate what you actually mean when you get in the habit of saying or acting like you’re too busy:
I matter. Being busy means I’m needed and significant in this great big universe. Though going around literally telling people, “I matter!” and expecting some sort of substantive conversation to result would be really weird, I’ll just say “I’m busy!” instead.
I am super-important. Doling out complaints and explanations about being too busy is the express line to a mini-ego trip. It’s going beyond “I matter” to “I matter… more than you” despite the fact that nobody ever wants to hear this.
I’m giving you an easy excuse. This is one of the easiest outs for stuff I don’t want to do. Alternatively, I’ve spent a lot of time being distracted or stuck, but this excuse allows me to feel OK with it.
I’m afraid. I keep relentlessly busy because I suffer from FOMO, or fear of missing out. I’m scared that I don’t matter, that I’m not important, that I’m not needed, so I’m going to spend my time on distracting stuff that doesn’t really matter, that’s not all that important, where I’m not actually needed.
I feel guilty. There’s fulfilling, meaningful stuff that I actually do want to do but I can rationalise it away instead of confronting challenges or changing direction. Alternatively, I think being busy is such a valuable quality that I’ll overbook myself to the point where I feel guilty for not getting to everything or for spending time on anything that doesn’t fit into a limited definition of “productive.”
The worship of busy-ness as such a virtue is where the trouble begins, providing the foundation to its indiscriminate use as a front or an excuse. It’s easy, even enticing, to neglect the importance of filling our time with meaning, thinking instead that we’ll be content with merely filling our time. We self-impose these measures of self-worth by looking at quantity instead of quality of activity.
In the children’s book (that every adult should read), The Phantom Tollbooth, the protagonist Milo comes across the frightening, faceless Terrible Trivium, a “demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit.” Milo and his friends fall under his spell, agreeing to perform busy-work like moving a huge pile of sand from one place to another, grain by grain, using a tweezer. The Terrible Trivium’s explanation for this terrible fate?
If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. For there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing.
What a scary thought! So if you find yourself feeling frazzled, habitually explaining away things with a busy status, it’s probably time to slow down and pay attention to the important, difficult stuff. Examine what is keeping you so busy compared to what you really should and want to be doing.
Here are a couple ways to start:
Track yo’ self. In the quest to better connect your attention and action, do an attention audit. Track your time using a tool like Harvest or a time log spreadsheet. Break down how you spend time on the computer with RescueTime. Or see how you answer the questions of “What did you get done today?” and “What did you pay attention to today?” over time using iDoneThis.
Change your language. We like this tip from Laura Vanderkam. Instead of putting things in terms of time and activity, frame them in terms of priority:
Instead of saying “I don’t have time” try saying “it’s not a priority,” and see how that feels. Often, that’s a perfectly adequate explanation. I have time to iron my sheets, I just don’t want to. But other things are harder. Try it: “I’m not going to edit your résumé, sweetie, because it’s not a priority.” “I don’t go to the doctor because my health is not a priority.” If these phrases don’t sit well, that’s the point. Changing our language reminds us that time is a choice. If we don’t like how we’re spending an hour, we can choose differently.
Another thing you can do is once you have a clearer handle of your priorities and how you want to spend your energy, change your definition of “productivity” to encompass those things.
Press pause. Not only do we need to rest and renew, we also have to slow down and pause to acknowledge our feelings, celebrate our accomplishments, and gain some insight. Brené Brown explains how people stay busy out of habit and fear. She recommends letting go of “exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth” and allowing us to explore what matters:
[W]hen we make the transition from crazy-busy to rest, we have to find out what comforts us, what really refuels us, and do that. We deserve to not just put work away and be in service of someone else. What’s really meaningful for us? What do we want to be doing?
Do less and feel more joy. The opposite of the fear of missing out, as Anil Dash so beautifully wrote, is the joy of missing out. Pay attention to what’s in front of you, and you’ll gain control and find joy.
Being the one in control of what moves me, what I feel obligated by, and what attachments I have to fleeting experiences is not an authority that I’m willing to concede to the arbitrary whims of an app on my mobile phone.
Feel more joy. Learn how to do less. Stop spreading yourself so thin by saying “no” more, by saying “no” to being busy, and by meaning “yes” more fully.
Busyness is Not a Virtue [iDoneThis]
Janet Choi is the Chief Creative Officer at iDoneThis, the easiest way to get more of the right stuff done. She writes about productivity, growth, fulfilment and the way people work. Follow her on Twitter at @lethargarian.